The Hunger Scale: Recognizing Hunger and Fullness

Today’s “Making the Changes That Matter” post covers a topic that may seem obvious, but it’s really not. In fact, this whole month is dedicated to an incredibly simple subject: mindful eating.

For today’s post, we’re going to focus in on one aspect of mindful eating that is oddly difficult to master: recognizing hunger and fullness by using a self-driven hunger scale.

Before we get started, though, I want to inject one side note: mindful eating is often held up as an alternative to “formal” portion control methods, like calorie counting or measuring/weighing food. However, it’s important to remember that strategies work extremely well in tandem, and often are NOT mutually exclusive. Mindful eating is not a “get out of jail free card” that overrides the science of nutrition, just like calorie counting doesn’t get you off the hook for addressing behavioral habits like binging and self-soothing with food.

Mindful eating and other behavioral modifications work really, really well together, and will probably combine to make you happier and healthier in your relationship with food. In short: do what works for you, and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Hunger Scale

The easiest way to use a hunger scale is to give yourself a spectrum from 1-10, “1” being ravenous, and “10” being uncomfortably stuffed.

A good practice on any given day is to not let yourself get hungrier than a 3 and not fuller than a 7. If you want to be even more moderate, you could set an expectation of staying between 3-4 on the bottom end and 6 at the top.

Anytime you start to get hungry, ask yourself, “Where am I?”

Then, once you are eating, you ask yourself throughout the meal, “Where am I?”

It helps to learn the physical cues of hunger – a rumbling stomach and a dip in energy, for example – and the physical cues of satisfaction – no rumbling stomach and an increased heart rate, for example.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

The reason mindful eating can be tricky to be implement is that we are often not in touch with our body’s real cues. Some cues can be deceptive, if we’re not habituated to interpreting signals accurately.

For example, cravings and thirst can often masquerade as hunger. Having several large glasses of water between breakfast and lunch can enough to eliminate the need for a morning snack. Similarly, cravings often are a preoccupation with a specific food, and can’t be satisfied with just any food. For example, if you really, really need that granola bar but wouldn’t be happy with an apple, you are probably not really hungry – just bored and procrastisnacking.

Similarly, fullness can be slow to show up, especially with specific foods. Instead of waiting to feel “full,” try to stop eating when you’re simply “not hungry.” It may take experimentation to ensure that you are eating enough food using this system, but it’s an effective way to learn the difference between “enough” and “too much.”

Also, just because a food is still tasting good and is pleasurable to eat does not mean you are still hungry. With extremely delicious foods, I highly recommend that you pause even more often to ask yourself where you are on the hunger scale, because it’s harder to tell.

Again, smart preparation can help significantly with this. Packing a well-portioned lunch is key to promoting healthy habits, for example, but it only increases your eating skills to practice mindful eating while eating your healthfully-prepared lunch.

The Sensation of Hunger is Not Dangerous or Deadly

Finally, it’s important to note that hunger can be a complicated topic, for two primary reasons:

  • Many areas of the world, and even parts of the U.S., struggle with food security. Hunger is a serious problem.
  • Similarly, people who struggle with eating disorders can have a complex relationship with hunger.

I just want to say that, anytime I talk about hunger, I am not referring to these two situations. I am speaking directly to the “average” reader who would benefit from fine-tuning their relationship with hunger and fullness cues, in favor of consuming a more nutrient-dense diet and eating less overall.

As I said to a client during a coaching call last week, “The sensation of hunger is not dangerous or deadly.” Feeling your stomach rumble a little is not an unhealthy or undesirable experience. It’s simply slightly uncomfortable, and you should attend to it. But feeling it at all is not a bad thing.

In developed countries, we often do not wait long enough to become hungry, and many of our eating habits are aimed defensively at not becoming hungry.

Even though I caution clients against becoming too hungry (when decision-making deteriorates after hours of hunger), I also think it’s a mistake to never be hungry at all. Experiment with letting your stomach rumble and learn to space out meals so that you are eating at the sweet spot of hunger.

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project (with weekly strategies to try out), sign up on this page to get these questions delivered directly to your inbox each week, as well as a free gift!

Last month in “10 Tips for Long-Term Metabolic Health,” we explored the biggest changes that you can make to your lifestyle to improve the long-term outlook of your metabolic health.

This week, I only have one question. List the top three tips from the last blog post that spoke to you the most, and explain how you want to implement them into your lifestyle!

E-mail these answers to me! 

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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